As we move into a new decade, the tech-based transformation of community engagement in planning is well underway. But, unlike other digital interventions in the planning system, it isn't just about speed and efficiency.

Like most other things in our lives, public consultation in planning will undoubtedly be 'digital by default' by the time we enter the next decade. Here's why taking a 'digital-first' approach to consultation and community engagement is more than just about making planners' jobs easier and organisations more efficient:

It increases community buy-in and trust

Online engagement makes earlier and more effective 'issues and opportunities' engagement possible, where communities can highlight local issues, ideas and aspirations for a project from the outset, before plans are formulated. This is a really effective way to understand the key local issues at an early stage, increase community buy-in to the project and build trust in what you're doing.

Community feedback is visualised online in various forms throughout the project lifecycle to convey that everyone's input counts and that community opinion can't be hidden or ignored, which is a common accusation levelled at planners and developers at village hall-type consultations.

It makes outcomes more balanced and representative

Because web-based engagement platforms are accessible to everyone 24 hours a day using a smartphone, tablet or PC, input isn't limited to the most motivated or those with the time on their hands to go to a drop-in event. That means young, busy, working people have just as much opportunity to have their say, bring balance to the conversation about your project.

It helps build and mobilise community support more effectively

Once the engagement platform has captured the opinion and sentiments of people of all life circumstances and age groups in the community, those in favour and with buy-in to the project (that have opted-in to updates) can be sent email blasts at crucial project stages to let them know how they can influence and demonstrate their support to decision-makers quickly and easily.

It costs far less than traditional engagement methods

Creating an online environment for community input as an alternative to a traditional drop-in event means that you don't need to pay for room hire, day rates for your technical consultants, public liability insurance, catering costs and expensive large format printing. What's more, because community feedback is digitised and analysed automatically and instantly in real-time when a questionnaire is completed online, you won't have to spend time and resources typing-up paper forms into a spreadsheet.

It helps reduce planning risks and build confidence

Because you have identified and understood the contentious local issues, broad community aspirations and a representative view of community opinion from the outset and in real-time, its much less likely that your project team will have to go back to the drawing board and make design changes retrospectively. This reduces the potential for planning delays and more consultants fees, in turn building confidence in your project from investors, stakeholders and decision-makers.

Before you ring-up and book a village hall or send your A1 display boards to print for your next village hall-type event, make sure you get in touch with us at Participatr to find out how you can do things differently and take a 'digital-first' approach to consultation.

Written by Paul Erskine-Fox - Founder, Participatr

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